Sparse Attendance at First Pinelands Referendum Public Hearing

Questioner Told Suing Builder of Crumbling High School a Waste of Time and Money
Sep 28, 2016

The first public hearing regarding the three Pinelands Regional School District referendums that will appear on the Nov. 8 ballot was held last Tuesday, Sept. 20. The turnout wasn’t overwhelming; just 14 persons were in the audience.

The hearing, though, had little advance publicity. It was originally set to be a meeting between district representatives and members of the governing bodies of the four sending municipalities – Tuckerton borough and Little Egg Harbor, Eagleswood and Bass River townships. It was successful in that regard, with representatives from Little Egg Harbor, Eagleswood and Tuckerton in attendance. Although Bass River’s officials didn’t show up, three residents did, and as it turned out, they asked the most questions and expressed the most concerns.

Pinelands Regional School District board members and Interim Superintendent Maryann Banks were present, but the presentation was made by Board Secretary/Business Administrator Stephen J. Brennan and Robert Garrison of Garrison Architects.

A quick review of the three referendum questions:

The first is for $46,826,329, of which the state would pay an estimated 40 percent, or $18,730,532. That would leave district taxpayers with a bill of $28,095,797 to be paid off over 25 years. The impact on an owner of an average assessed home in Tuckerton ($200,000) would be $67 a year. A Little Egg Harbor owner of a $196,100 home would be responsible for $80 a year. The owner of a home assessed at $252,215 in Eagleswood would shell out $97 a year while a Bass River resident owning a home assessed at $221,017 would also pay $97 per annum.

Question One includes many items in both the high school and the junior high, but the largest, far and away, is the $25,011,060 needed for exterior repairs at the high school. Water had intruded between the building’s brick exterior and the building’s frame, resulting in damage to the brick veneer and a stair tower’s connecting steel beams so severe that the stair tower had to be torn down and nine classrooms needed to be abandoned last winter.

Other Question One items include new roofs and HVAC construction for both buildings.

Question Two checks in at $4,875,448 with New Jersey paying 40 percent, or $1,907,679, while taxpayers will foot the bill for $2,967,769. The tax impacts on average assessed homes in Tuckerton, Little Egg Harbor, Eagleswood and Bass River respectively would be $10, $11, $14 and $14.

Question Two items include interior renovations and electrical construction at both the high and junior high school buildings. However, the major cost comes from site work at both schools.

Question Three deals with the district’s athletic complex, including a new grass football field, the resurfacing of the track and tennis courts, and a new sidewalk to be built around the track leading to the stands.

The total cost of Question Three is $1,943,750, of which the state would pay only 19 percent, or $375,000, leaving taxpayers with a bill for $1,568,750. If approved by voters, it would increase the average tax bill in Tuckerton by $5 for 25 years, $6 in Little Egg and $8 in Eagleswood and Bass River.

Question One must be approved by taxpayers before Questions Two and Three, even if approved themselves, could go into effect.

The main topic of discussion at the meeting was the exterior repairs at the high school. Why, a man from Bass River asked, couldn’t the firm that constructed the building back in 1979 be held responsible – in other words, sued – for faulty construction?

Brennan and Garrison explained that would be a waste of attorney fees, even though that firm still exists under different names. Too much time has passed. Just as crimes other than homicide have a statute of limitations, there is a principal of law called “statute of repose” in New Jersey that makes successfully suing a builder after more than 10 to 12 years almost totally impossible.

The Bass River man asked if the school could simply be replaced. He was told that the high school, which cost $9.2 million in 1978-79, would cost $60 million today, making it far more expensive than making repairs and renovations.

The junior high, said a woman from Bass River, was used as an emergency shelter during and after Superstorm Sandy. Shouldn’t or couldn’t FEMA chip in on any work at the junior high?

The answer was no.

The board members and administrators at the public hearing insisted that there were “no frills” in the referendum questions, only necessary items. This reporter questioned that assessment.

One item in Question Two, for example, calls for $350,000 for a new front entrance canopy – that description can still be found on the 30-page presentation posted on the district’s website. Don’t high school students know how to use umbrellas? But board members responded that the $350,000 wasn’t just for a canopy. It was also for a new secure front entrance, with a new set of doors leading to an entranceway where a school employee would be stationed during school hours to check anybody into the building before going through the second doorway. The question wasn’t keeping kids dry, it was keeping students safe.

If security was an issue, so was the Americans With Disabilities Act. This reporter questioned why a sidewalk was being built around the track to the grandstands and why a paved road would be constructed joining the high school parking lot to the entrance to the football field/track. People currently walk on the grass once inside the fence; a dirt road currently links the parking lot and the athletic complex.

ADA was the answer to the sidewalk question and, along with the problem of maintenance on the dirt road, the answer to the paved roadway question as well. Some people attending football games and other activities, such as graduation, have trouble walking on grass or dirt, especially when there are wet conditions.

That roadway will also be lit. Why? Pinelands football games are now held at night, thanks to the installation of field lighting several years ago. Lighting of the dirt road wasn’t necessary when games were played during the day; night games now make lighting needed because of safety issues.

Residents who missed the public hearing will have two more opportunities to ask questions and express opinions before the vote on Nov. 8. The first will be part of the board’s regularly scheduled meeting at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 12. The second is set for 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 2.

— Rick Mellerup

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